Posts Tagged ‘marketers’
I’m concerned, however, that greenwashing may be distracting marketing executives and educators from an even more distressing matter: The vast number of companies, large and small, that even today don’t give lip service to green or sustainable products or practices. They don’t pretend to be sustainable, don’t promise to become sustainable, don’t understand what it means to be sustainable and, frankly, don’t appear to care.
The marketing and advertising of these companies remain what they’ve always been: attempts to promote and sell products and services, without a hint of green gloss. They stress the usual customer benefits: greater value, quality, innovation, convenience, luxury, responsiveness, ROI and the like. But they make no claims to be more earth-friendly, socially responsible or otherwise green or sustainable. These businesses continue to do what they’ve always done, with no obvious regard or accountability for the environmental or social impact of their actions now or across future generations, except perhaps as required by law, rule or regulation.
I don’t know what percentage of businesses are making concerted efforts to become far more sustainable. I’d wager it’s a small minority. One reason the media features companies that embrace sustainability is they are the exceptions. If every company was going green, there would be no story. And one reason businesses tout the “greenness” of their products or practices (sometimes resorting to greenwashing) is they see a competitive or “first mover” advantage. Again, if all companies produced sustainable goods or services, that advantage disappears.
The point is too few businesses are serious about sustainability today. And that should have brand managers, PR counselors, ad execs, social media mavens and all other marketers up in arms.
I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of greenwashing — no company should be allowed an advantage through false or deceptive marketing. But who should worry us more:
- The few unethical companies (and their marketers) trying to pull the green wool over our eyes? Or…
- The many businesses making truthful, “non-green” claims that contribute to excessive or inequitable consumption and their inevitable byproducts: natural resource depletion, ecological damage, climate change, poverty?
Marketers committed to sustainability have a perfect opportunity in this worsening recession to drive home a critical point among their not-so-green peers: It’s time to examine the very role of marketers in fueling unsustainable economies and ways of living. Or stated more positively, how marketers can get on the right side of sustainability.
Ridding the world of greenwashing would be welcomed progress. Harnessing the creative and persuasive talents of every marketer on behalf of a sustainable world would be nothing short of awesome.
Journalist Lucas Conley wrote his book, “OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder,” just before 2008′s financial and economic meltdowns. You would expect branding excess in an economic bubble. But what about in a near depression? If anything, Conley told me in an email exchange last month, the condition he calls OBD is likely to get worse.
“As for OBD in the current economy, I can condense my general observations down to a couple points: consumers are buying less and thinking more. The result of both is that brands are trying harder (either via marketing, discounts, redesigned packaging, etc.) to capture our attention, often driving greater desperation and obsessive branding. Why? When consumers buy less (cutting back on staples and skipping status buys) it means brands have to fight even more for a smaller piece of the pie. When consumers think more (Do I really need this salon shampoo? Isn’t the generic ibuprofen more or less the same as the pricier brand?), they tend to dispel brand myths and discover deals. And any time consumers do more thinking, brands have to fight harder to shortcut their logic with emotional appeals (faster and deeper than logic) or overwhelm them with more marketing, new packaging, etc.”
If Conley proves to be right, and I think he will, the extreme efforts of brands to occupy every nook and cranny of our lives will grow even more frantic and insidious in this rotten economy. And we’re not only talking about consumer products companies. Product and service companies of all stripes are running scared. They could resort to most anything to get customer attention.
Not that any of us would be so guilty, right? Conley says the marketers he interviewed for his book agreed obsessive branding was a widespread problem–it just didn’t apply to them. In other words, they know OBD when they see it; they just don’t see it in themselves.
How about those of us trying to operate our businesses and live our lives more sustainably? Are we better equipped to draw the line when it comes to marketing approaches that offer only the illusion of something innovative, better, unique? Or that deceive customers into believing we offer something they truly need, not just desire?
In this economy, devoted “greenies” in business are not exempt from diminishing prospects. Companies that in good times preach transparency and authenticity in their business practices may be challenged to maintain that commitment as sales rapidly disappear. Numerous incidences of greenwashing in recent years indicate even so-called advocates for sustainability are not above sleight-of-hand branding tactics.
Obsessive branding, Conley argues, distracts companies from what they ought to be doing–innovating. “Real change results from innovation that advances knowledge and improves quality of lives,” he writes. “Branding offers the satisfaction of a sense of change without the hard work.”
There are no shortcuts in the honest pursuit of sustainability. But businesses trying to be more sustainable will also become more innovative. And that will be their ultimate competitive edge.
Want to stand out in this dismal marketplace? Stick to the principles of sustainability. Lead with innovation. And when it comes to your brand, seek the middle ground between neglect and obsession.
P.S. A special note of thanks to McClenahan Bruer Communications, my previous agency, for hosting and introducing me to Lucas Conley last fall.
Consumer spending is falling fast. While that’s bad for the economy, it’s good for the environment. Excessive consumption produces waste and pollution streams that are destroying our planet. The question now is how are we going to respond to the economic crisis at hand. If our elected officials and business leaders seize the moment, the consumption downturn will ignite a movement that saves our economy and our environment for generations to come.
And maybe, just maybe we marketers will heed the call to help lead the way.
In the near term, an environmental benefit will be of little solace to those whose jobs depend on consumer spending, which is to say most of us since consumer spending comprises nearly two-thirds of our economy. It’s all-but certain the current financial crisis will slip into an economic recession, perhaps as rough as any we’ve experienced in decades.
As painful as the near future may become, the glass half-full view reveals the opportunity ahead. Financier George Soros explains:
You see, for the last 25 years the world economy, the motor of the world economy that has been driving it was consumption by the American consumer who has been spending more than he has been saving, all right? Than he’s been producing. So that motor is now switched off. It’s finished…You need a new motor. And we have a big problem. Global warming. It requires big investment. And that could be the motor of the world economy in the years to come.
Over consumption, made possible by easy access to debt, explains much of the financial mess we’re in today. And a consumer economy, stoked by cheap, abundant fossil fuels, is a principle cause of global warming. In the end, reliance on consumer spending is both bad for the economy and bad for the environment. Other than that, it’s great.
What makes the coming elections so critical is the next president and Congress will decide whether we as a nation will fundamentally change the underpinnings of our economy. If we simply find new ways to prop up our consumption-based economy, we will hasten the day of reckoning that climate change requires. If we embrace the environmental and social challenges of climate change as the economic opportunity of our times, we can all look toward the future with hope.
For marketers, the opportunity is to finally begin leading the world in the right direction. If “the motor of the world economy” has been consumption, the fuel has been marketing. Marketers create awareness and demand for goods, services and ideas. The problem is we’ve used our talents overwhelmingly in support of unsustainable economies, employers and clients.
But that can change. Imagine if we were to unleash our creativity and persuasive abilities in service to freeing our economy from dependence on fossil fuels and mindless consumption. I’m convinced the impact would be both enormous and swift for our climate, environment and economy.
I don’t know whether the collective parts of the marketing industry — branding, advertising, PR, direct marketing etc. — are up to the task. The industry is so deeply enmeshed in the profitable, but dead-end ways of consumerism. So be it. The train is leaving with or without us. In the words of Thomas Paine, our choice is simple: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”
As I get ready for my summer vacation in the Northwest, my thoughts are in the South, specifically New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. That area is about to mark the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. No doubt residents fortunate enough to have homes and jobs and politicians and government officials charged with the region’s recovery will cite the many signs of progress. Others, with equal claim, will point to the vast stretches that have yet to recover, looking virtually as they did when the floodwaters receded.
My reflection is of a different sort. I only experienced the storm and its catastrophic aftermath through the media. A year after Katrina hit, I traveled along the Gulf Coast and into New Orleans. I needed to see with my own eyes what had happened. I returned to New Orleans a few months later as part of a volunteer crew that gutted and cleaned homes for a week. Needless to say, what I saw with my own eyes has left a lasting impression.
I realize now that Katrina is as responsible as anything for the shift I made in my work. I had spent 20 years in high tech marketing and was running the PR and advertising agency I co-founded in 1993 when all hell broke loose in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The storm and a tragically flawed response at all levels of government laid bare for the entire world to see the outrageous inequities and injustices that remain in our land of the free and home of the brave.
By coincidence, I departed my previous business and the high tech industry a year after Katrina hit. I had decided I needed to shift what I knew how to do — branding, marketing, communications — in support of businesses and organizations whose values and actions are making the world a better place. When I formed a new firm to work at the crossroads of sustainability and marketing, I wasn’t seeing sustainability through the single lens of saving the environment. As much as we humans have disregarded and damaged our natural world, we have caused no less harm to each other. Katrina was simply the most recent evidence.
Efforts to create a sustainable future must treat the Earth and all of its inhabitants as one. Sustainability isn’t saving the old growth in the Pacific Northwest forests and ignoring the rights of all humans to have their basic needs met and to live in peace. By this standard, green marketing falls short. Its preoccupation with promoting eco-friendly products is often little more than dressing up unsustainable consumption in a different color. Even more significantly, green marketing doesn’t go far enough to address the broader human and social dimensions of sustainability. If you’re a retailer touting your green product lines while paying employees low wages and no benefits, you fail the sustainability test.
Management guru Peter Drucker said the function of marketing is to create and keep a customer. In this post-Katrina world, maybe it’s worth remembering that customers are humans first. Forget that, and one day marketers will have no customers to keep.
In advertising circles these days, “word of mouth” has its own acronym (WOM) and trade association (WOMMA), signaling its arrival as a marketing discipline. Companies love good WOM because they believe their customers are likely to believe friends and peers who recommend their products more than any commercial source. While that marketing axiom has been around for decades, what’s changed is the dedication and technology marketers are applying to monitor and generate WOM — or buzz.
So with a raised eyebrow I read an op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times, “Loose Lips Win Elections.” The authors, executives at a research firm, claim that John Edwards and Mike Huckabee performed better than expected in the Iowa caucuses because they benefited from what they called “word of mouth advocates” — evangelistic supporters who spoke to friends and colleagues before and during the caucuses.
Whether by chance or design, such citizen advocates created the explosive growth in support for Mike Huckabee and sustained John Edwards, even as both were vastly outspent by their opponents.
I don’t believe sophisticated presidential campaigns leave anything like this to chance. It was by design that Edwards and Huckabee got their citizen advocates out in large numbers. Good for them. As the op-ed writers noted, both candidates had to do something to counteract the much larger TV advertising campaigns mounted by their chief rivals. And they understandably chose a WOM strategy. According to the authors:
Public trust in all kinds of communication is eroding, with a notable exception: word of mouth…Our mid-December survey of Iowa voters found 38 percent saying they trusted information provided by TV ads, while 69 percent trusted “comments from friends, relatives and colleagues.”
There’s reason to believe even word of mouth will soon suffer the same credibility loss as other forms of communications. Why? Because marketers are increasingly manipulating and instigating word of mouth, as Adweek magazine explained in last week’s issue:
People, of course, have always acted as brand ambassadors by sharing recommendations with friends and associates…Now, however, these interactions have become supercharged thanks to a new breed of brand ambassadorship programs that formalize the relationship between marketers and average consumers passionate about their products. These programs “hire” consumers, via incentives and rewards, to act as part PR agents, part sales reps and part evangelists. They mix the spontaneity of buzz building with technology to instigate, guide and measure what repeat customers are saying to each other about their brands.
As citizens begin to understand how these so-called ambassador programs work, it won’t be long before many of us start doubting the credibility of certain acquaintances or colleagues who speak with unbridled fervor for a brand — whether a product or a candidate. After all, they may be receiving compensation of some sort for speaking out. I say “may” because right now there’s no guarantee these enthusiastic consumers or voters will divulge their relationship to a commercial or political entity. As Adweek explains:
The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a trade group of agencies and marketers who use word-of-mouth marketing, has instituted an informal, but largely unenforced, industry policy that brand reps must always disclose their relationship to the product or service when promoting it.
So whether on behalf of products or candidates, word of mouth appears destined to become yet another suspect source of communication. That means the Huckabees and Edwards of the next Iowa campaign won’t be able to count on vocal supporters to sway opinion like they did this time around. And worse yet, the rest of us are left to wonder whose words we can still trust and whose opinions have been put up for sale.